Depression and Autism

Is There a Link Between Depression and Autism?

Mood disorders like depression are some of the most common mental health conditions in the world. While anyone can experience the symptoms of depression or other mood disorders, certain risk factors can make an individual more susceptible to the condition. People with developmental disabilities and learning difficulties tend to have higher rates of clinical depression than the general population.

People struggling with autism spectrum disorders are at higher risk of becoming depressed. But how are depression and autism linked, and can one condition worsen the effects of the other? Although both of these disorders are entirely different – one is a mental health disorder, and the other is a developmental disability, there are some links between the two.

What is autism?

Autism is also called ASD, or autism spectrum disorder. It affects almost 1.7% of the U.S. population, with most people diagnosed with the condition as children. Autism is more commonly diagnosed in boys than girls, but ethnic, gender, and other demographic gaps in diagnosis are decreasing. Autism is on the rise in the U.S., with a 15% increase in rates of ASD over two years.

Depression and Autism

Similar to depression, autism is an umbrella term, encompassing a wide range of different clinical subtypes of the disability. However, the disorder is mainly characterized by difficulty in social interactions, speech, and also nonverbal communication. People with autism will engage in repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth, to self-soothe. Individuals with the condition are often sensitive to sensory stimuli and can become easily overwhelmed in social situations especially.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, individuals diagnosed with ASD will have their own set of unique strengths and challenges in managing the condition. The way a person with autism displays symptoms learns and problem-solves will vary significantly for each person. Some people with autism will need minimal intervention, and will eventually be able to live independently. Others may have more significant challenges that require ongoing case management and support with daily functioning.

Many factors can influence the development of the condition, including genetic risk factors, and environmental risk factors as well. Most autism symptoms will be noticeable by the time a child reaches the age of two or three. People with autism often struggle with sensory sensitivities and other disorders, such as GI disorders, sleep conditions, and even seizures. Patients usually present with anxiety, depression, and attention issues too. The youngest age that a person can be diagnosed with autism is 18 months old. The earlier a child is diagnosed, and doctors intervene, the better their outcomes will be as they grow.

What is depression?

Depression is a mood disorder that can significantly impair a person’s ability to function in their day-to-day life. At its most severe, a person with untreated depression can commit suicide. Without intervention, depression can completely derail a person’s life. They may struggle to stay in school, go to work, or their relationships may be damaged because of their symptoms. Individuals with depressive disorders are also at increased risk of turning to drugs or alcohol to alleviate their symptoms.

Depression has different clinical subtypes. A person’s genetics, temperament, gender, and environment can all influence which subtype they can develop. In most cases, depression comes in waves, where a person will experience an episode that can last for several weeks, months, or even years. Symptoms can vary in duration and severity, and each patient can display different sets of signs and patterns of depressive behavior on an individual basis. The symptoms of depression affect a person on a physical, emotional, and behavioral level.

  • Trouble sleeping, either sleeping too much or too little
  • Feeling fatigued and lethargic despite getting a good night’s sleep
  • Changes in appetite
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Withdrawing socially and isolated oneself
  • Feeling unexplained aches and pains
  • Increased irritability and agitation
  • Flat affect and feeling “numb.”
  • Inexplicable, pervasive feelings of sadness
  • Feeling guilty and worthless
  • Failing to attend work or school
  • Not participating in self-care routines
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • A loss of pleasure in once enjoyable activities
  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts

Even without treatment, depression symptoms can go away on their own. But each subsequent episode of depression will be worse than the first. Also, patients and their families cannot predict how bad the episode will be, and the most severe depression episodes can cause a patient to attempt suicide.

How are they linked?

Depression and autism spectrum disorder are different, in that depression is a mental health disorder, while autism is a developmental disability. Both conditions are chronic and require ongoing maintenance and care.

Half of all adults with autism will go on to experience a depressive episode. Studies have found that the higher a person with autism rates on the Intelligence Quotient, the higher their risk of depression. It is speculated that autistic patients with higher IQs are more aware of their difficulties and therefore, more likely to be upset by them.

People with autism have trouble with communication and speech. It can be incredibly difficult for patients with autism to describe their symptoms and feelings to clinicians. Likewise, clinicians may have a hard time recognizing the symptoms of depression in autistic patients. People with autism and depression are at increased risk of having the mood disorder go undiagnosed and untreated, thus worsening their symptoms and outcomes. It is often more beneficial for caregivers and doctors of those with autism to notice the physical signs of depression in autistic patients, such as a sudden change in appetite or sleep habits, for faster diagnosis and treatment.

How are autism and depression treated?

People with autism and depression can benefit from a combination of ongoing therapy that is tailored to their needs and disability. Patients can also find relief from their symptoms with antidepressant medications. Severe cases of clinical depression can be alleviated with deep brain stimulation techniques, such as safe and effective transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Autism disorders and depression will need continuous, lifelong care and maintenance but it is possible for people with both conditions to live independently. If you or a loved one have ASD and are experiencing depression symptoms, do not hesitate to contact the doctors at Pulse TMS today. Depression is a serious condition, but it is highly treatable.